Yedidya Julian Sinclair

Brandeis and Betrayal

I knew this would happen. You begin blogging with virtuous intentions to only write about things you know a bit about, like work, or your life or interesting Jewish stuff happening in Israel. Then something so utterly outrageous happens that you can’t shut up about even though your only qualification for writing on it is being a morally sentient human being.

I might still have shut up if everyone else were writing about it. But since they aren’t (I haven’t seen one op-ed about this on the Times if Israel site), here goes.

The story in brief for those who only get their news from T of I: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the campaigner for women’s rights in Muslim communities was invited by Brandeis University to receive an honorary degree and give the 2014 commencement address.

Hirsi Ali writes and speaks about honour killing in muslim families, female genital mutilation, and the widespread forced marriage of muslim girls as young as nine to men they do not know. The number of girls and women murdered by close family members in honour killings each year is hard to count as many are not reported, but the BBC estimates that it is at least 20,000.

According to a recent research article in Middle East Review  the “cause” can be an unsuitable boyfriend, or merely an interest in movies or books; around half the cases also involve torture as well as murder and although the phenomenon also exists in Sikh and Hindu communities, more than 90% of cases involve muslims.

Hirsi Ali has first hand experience of all these things, so presumably knows what she’s talking about. She suffered genital mutilation at the age of five, fled to the Netherlands to avoid forced marriage to a cousin and for the past decade has lived in daily danger of being murdered for dishonoring Islam since she co-produced a movie called Submission about the situation of women in the muslim world with film-maker Theo Van Gogh. Van Gogh was murdered on the street in Amsterdam shortly after the film appeared.

The killer pinned a note to Van Gogh’s chest saying that Hirsi Ali would be next. She went into hiding until, no longer confident that Holland would protect her, she moved to the US.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (a Saudi-funded organization that has been implicated in funding Hamas) expressed outrage at Brandeis’ invitation and promoted a petition to have it revoked. This garnered 7000 signatures, mostly from people not connected to the university. 85 out of 350 Brandeis faculty also signed a letter to have Hirsi Ali disinvited.

Brandeis caved and cancelled the invitation. They issued a statement explaining that though the university respected her work “we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.  For all concerned, we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”

Not to be aware of the views of someone whose books made the bestseller lists worldwide shows a deplorable lack of intellectual curiosity in a university at best (if it isn’t an outright lie.) Moreover, Brandeis has also conferred honorary degrees on playwright Tony Kushner, who believes that the creation of Israel was a mistake, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, an anti-apartheid hero, but also an unrepentant anti-semite who calls the Jewish lobby “powerful and scary” and sanitized the Nazi gas-chambers saying that they made for a “neater death” than that suffered by blacks under apartheid.

From which it necessarily follows either that Brandeis was lamentably ignorant of their views as well, or that negation of the State of Israel, antisemitism and trivialization of the holocaust are not “inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values” or that Brandeis’ true core values are hypocrisy and cowardice.

Brandeis University was named for Justice Louis Brandeis an indefatigable defender of liberal values, free speech and thought, and one of the greatest American Jews who ever lived. Brandeis famously wrote “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” To disinvite and humiliate a woman who lays her life on the line each day to shed sunlight on some of the ugliest things happening in the world today is a betrayal of Louis Brandeis’ core values, never mind the university’s.

I heard Hirsan Ali speak at the President’s Conference in Jerusalem last summer and was moved to tears by her moral courage and clarity. It is sad and shameful that Brandeis students won’t hear her at their commencement.

How has a commitment to defend the oppressed mutated from compassion for the truly wretched to a zealous concern that students enjoying a $250,000 private education will not hear something that might make them feel uncomfortable?

Here is what Hirsan Ali would have said.




About the Author
Yedidya Julian Sinclair works in the Israeli clean tech world. Before moving to Israel he was as an economist in the UK government. In his spare time he is a writer,translator, urban tour guide and teaches Jewish texts and sources. He holds semicha, degrees from Oxford and Harvard and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and five children.